Pedaling Through Hyde Park with Dean Boyer

In an exclusive interview with The Maroon, Dean of the College John Boyer discusses his love of biking and shares his favorite bike routes in Chicago.


Meghan Hendrix

Boyer leading his Autumn Quarter bike tour.

By Kayla Rubenstein

Some know him as a Civilizations professor; others, as a researcher who has dedicated years to the study of modern European history. Many know him as the Dean of the College, a position he has held for 31 years. Perhaps John Boyer’s most iconic role, however, is that of a cyclist. 

In an exclusive interview with The Maroon, Boyer detailed how he began biking 70 years ago, at the age of six. Boyer grew up in the South Side of Chicago, and credits the terrain as one of the reasons he fell in love with biking. “Chicago is a great city for biking because it’s flat,” he joked. “I guess when I came to the University, the natural thing was to get a bike, and another bike, and another bike.” 

While Boyer’s childhood bike has since rusted, he currently has three bikes: a light one for the summer, a sturdier one for the winter, and one he keeps in case of emergencies. Though Boyer does not name his bikes, he does extol their reliability. “The best thing is to have a good, sturdy bike that you can replace rather than a bike that’s so expensive that you know you have to treasure it and keep it forever,” he explained. 

Every day, Boyer rides his bike from his home on 57th Street and Blackstone Avenue to his office in Harper Library, turning a 15-minute walk into a three-minute bike ride. 

Biking also has other perks besides efficiency, according to Boyer. “It’s a convenient way of getting around Hyde Park without contributing to the noise pollution and air pollution. [Bike riding] also costs nothing in terms of insurance; you may need life insurance, but not auto insurance,” he said. 

Boyer highlighted the value of biking over other forms of transportation. “There are fascinating neighborhoods where you can actually get to know the people by being on a bike. It’s different than being in a car or a bus, where you’re disconnected,” he explained. 

Chicago’s weather in the wintertime might dissuade many cyclists, but not Boyer, who will bike in almost any conditions. “I always joke that wherever a CTA bus can go, I can go in the winter because the CTA does a pretty good job of clearing the space,” he said. “As long as you can see the pavement and you can feel the crunch of the salt under your wheels, you’re probably okay.” The only conditions in which Boyer refuses to ride is when he sees black ice on the streets. “Black ice is a no-go. There are people who do it, but I don’t want to end up in an orthopedic ward,” he said. 

Twice a year, Boyer shares his love of biking with the greater UChicago community. Alongside political science professor Mark Hansen, Boyer leads a bike tour through various locations around Chicago. He adopted the idea 20 years ago from sociology professor Terry Clark, who took his graduate students on a similar biking path. Chicago Studies orchestrates the event, during which Hansen and Boyer take the group to the South Loop, through the University of Illinois Chicago’s campus, west to the Hull House, and back through Bronzeville. In the spring, the trip focuses on the South Side, with the group biking down to the Indiana border. 

When searching for places to take students during biking trips, Boyer turns to his historian background. “[Chicago] is a big city with a deep history. There are a lot of interesting places to go, places that you might not think of at first.” 

One such place is the St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church, located at East 83rd Street and South South Shore Drive. The church, which opened in 1909, exemplifies the Polish Cathedral style and has a rich history. “The people who built [the church] were members of the Polish community. You can look at pictures of the monumental church, but seeing it in person, you’ll go inside and see the aspirations of this community of people working in a steel mill who got the money to build this great church for the community,” Boyer detailed. “It’s a very powerful thing to have students experience.” 

But Boyer also underscored the benefit of biking without a set plan. “I oftentimes will be riding along and see something that suddenly clicks in my mind, like ‘That’s a famous building,’ or ‘That’s a famous set of apartment buildings, or a famous restaurant, or a famous church or synagogue,’” he said. “And there’s a kind of serendipity factor, because as you’re riding along, you don’t know what’s just over the horizon.” 

For those looking to explore South Side neighborhoods via bike, Boyer recommends using Hansen’s book The City in a Garden, which offers a historical guide to Hyde Park and Kenwood. 

In terms of his most valued bike routes, Boyer awards the ride from his home to his office as his top choice. However, he stated that rides on the Lakefront Trail, especially during sunset, hold a special place in his heart. “I remember the first time I rode my bike down to Museum Campus… I remember it was in the fall and dusk and the sun was just setting. I was standing at Adler [Planetarium] and looking at the lakefront, the beauty of the light from the harbor and the magnificent skyscrapers in the setting sun. I still remember thinking, ‘Wow, what a treasure it is to live in a city like this,’” Boyer shared. “I only got there because I was riding my bike.”